The Product Plan vs. the Release Plan
Do you like to focus on the big picture — or get down in the details? It is true that our brains tend to favor one side or the other. But if you are a product manager your answer to this question should be “both.” Growing a successful product requires both top-down and bottom-up planning.
This is especially true when it comes to product planning. You need to be able to think about both the broad-strokes product vision as well as the tasks needed to get there. This means setting product direction at a high level and also capturing the near-term, cross-functional work — a product plan and a release plan.
A product plan defines the strategic direction of your product, while a release plan defines the work that goes into delivering against your vision.
The plans live separately, but there must be cohesiveness between the two. The product plan answers the questions: “Why are we building this? What are we trying to accomplish?”
And the release plan answers the follow-up questions: “What exactly do we need to build? When will we do it? How will the team support delivering a Complete Product Experience?”
Both plans are critical for product management and to the success of the product. But in order to create these plans, you need to understand the nuances of how they differ.
Here are the key differences between the product plan and the release plan:
The product plan goal is to communicate the direction of a product. (Or even an entire product line.) It shows how the product will deliver business value based on your strategy and business objectives.
The release plan goal is to keep the product team accountable for the work to be done. It articulates the details of the work and highlights the phases of work that must be completed. It also shows dependencies that will affect launch efforts downstream — helping with resource allocation, planning, and keeping the team in sync.
The product plan lays out initiatives representing major themes, areas of focus, and functionality over the next six months to a year. Those initiatives all tie back to the strategic goals that will bring value to the business and to customers.
The release plan assumes those strategic initiatives exist and is more focused on helping to focus the team. This plan lays out a clear path for day-to-day success. Initiative here is about motivation and accountability. It captures the timeframes for when you will deliver a new customer experience. It tracks all cross-functional efforts — both the technical and non-technical work — in one place. For example, this might include marketing efforts like updating the website following a major launch.
The product plan can be visualized as an external or internal strategic roadmap. It can be used to communicate internally to executive teams and advisory boards — or externally to customers and partners. For executive teams and advisory boards, it communicates high-level themes such as product direction and investment areas. For the customers, it lays out major areas of new functionality or enhancements that they can look forward to.
The release plan is for the internal product team and other cross-functional contributors. It helps plan upcoming work and track the details of that work. Essentially, it communicates cross-functional factors that shape how you will build what has been defined and go to market.
The product plan presents strategic goals and initiatives spanning a long timeframe. One year is common for software companies. However, for hardware companies where development takes longer, the timeline might be more like three to five years.
The release plan tracks specific phases of work that lead to the deployment of functionality or a major launch. This is usually much shorter than the product plan, depending on the company’s release cycle. It is often 30, 60, or 90 days.
Being responsible for a product plan and a release plan challenges product managers to think about every element of delivering a Complete Product Experience. It is a good way to encourage both big and small thinking.
Knowing what type of plan is needed when in the product development lifecycle is the first step. Once you have figured out whether you need to focus on the big picture or on the details, you will be on the right path. (And you will be working on the other type of plan before you know it.)
How do you use product plans and release plans in your work?